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In English, we have an interesting grammatical structure that we call reported speech. As the name suggests, it is a way to report what someone else said (or wrote). Basically, you are taking someone else’s words and ideas and saying them yourself whilst attributing them to the other person. We often use this in daily life, so it’s quite important. For example:

  • The teacher said that we had to prepare our group presentation before Monday’s tutorial.

But while some parts of daily speech are uncommon in TOEFL, actually this one is pretty important. In the speaking exam, for one thing, you will definitely need to use reported speech. This will be necessary when you do the integrated speaking sections that require you to give a response to something you read or hear.

In this article, I will explain what reported speech is, how to use it, and why it’s important for TOEFL.

What is reported speech?

Reported speech means taking what someone else has said and saying it again. However, rather than quoting the person directly, in reported speech we paraphrase what the other person said. You don’t need to struggle for new words, but there is a peculiar grammatical quirk that you do need to master, and that is the changing of tenses.

Imagine you hear a student say that she disagrees with the new university policy on transit times between classes. She says:

  • It is just not feasible that students can get from one class to the next in that amount of time.

You need to report what she said, and so you need to change the tenses accordingly, whilst also referencing the student so that the listener knows what you mean:

  • The student said(that) she did not think it was feasible that students could get from one class to the next in that amount of time.

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We have begun the sentence by introducing the speaker, who we will call “the student.” We have also used a reporting verb: “said.” (This is the most common of all reporting verbs as it is quite neutral and usually the most accurate.) We then need to include her opinion as we do not know whether what she said was a fact or not. In this case, we can say “think.” Importantly, we also need to change the tenses, and there are some rules about this that you must remember. As with many situations, the word “that” after the reporting verb is optional, and it is typically included in more formal situations, whilst being dropped in rather informal ones.

Direct Speech Reported Speech
Present Simple Past Simple
Present Continuous Past Continuous
Present Perfect Past Perfect
Past Simple Past Perfect
Will Would
Can Could
May Might
Must/ have to Had to

Basically, all tenses have taken a step backwards in time.

In reported speech, you also have to change the pronouns that are used. If a person says “us” or “we,” you will also need to change that into “them” or “they.” This is because you are not part of their group. You should change “I” into “he” or “she” according to their gender, too.

It is not just people to whom this applies. We also change places and times. “Now” becomes “then” and “this” becomes “that.” There are also some other more complicated examples, such as changing “tomorrow” into “the next day,” and so on.

Practice using reported speech

Take a look at the following examples, which are again taken from the listening passage to which a TOEFL speaking candidate must respond.

  1. I think it’s unfair that the scholarship is only available to students studying French.
  2. Those of us who are studying Spanish won’t be able to take advantage of it.
  3. The dean absolutely must intervene or else the other language students will be furious.
  4. We have studied in this department for two years and we have to be treated as equals.

You should now try turning those four sentences into reported speech.

Here are the answers:

  1. The student said that she thinksit was unfair that the scholarship was only available to students studying French.
    • Here, present simple has become past simple. The sentence is begun with “The student said that…” In this case, the gender is female but obviously you would change the pronoun if it was a man’s voice. I have added “thinks” because she is giving an opinion.
  2. She claimed that those of them who were studying Spanish wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it.
    • Here I avoided repetition by changing “the student” to “she.” If this were the only part I used reported speech for, I would probably say “the student.” Note that I also changed “us” to “them.” Remember that “won’t” is a negative contraction of “will” and so I changed it to “wouldn’t” (would + not).
  3. She said that the dean had to intervene or else the other language students would be furious.
    • In this case, the word “must” became “had to” and “will” became “would.” I deleted “absolutely” because reported speech is a little more formal and this word sounded strange and out of place my new sentence.
  4. She argued that they had studied in that department for two years and they had to be treated as equals.
    • You will notice that I have changed the reporting verb again. This is just to offer some variety, instead of repeating “said.” The tenses have been changed from present perfect to past perfect, the pronouns have been switched from “we” to “they,” and the word “this” has become “that.”

From those examples, you can clearly see that there are many possible changes needed when altering someone’s speech into the reported form. For that reason, it can actually be quite a complicated procedure. Thankfully, practice makes perfect and if you devote some time to doing this, you will find that it becomes easier and easier.

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Using reported speech in TOEFL

As I mentioned above, reported speech is quite important for the TOEFL speaking test because you have to respond to a prompt. You will hear someone talking about something and you then have to respond to it according to the instructions given to you. This will definitely give you a chance to use reported speech because it will be possible for you to refer directly to what the person said and then give your own ideas.

Of course, you will probably not have to or be able to quote the people as directly as I did in the examples above. Instead, you will probably have to paraphrase what they said by remembering the general idea and then stating it in your own words. Nonetheless, that still requires the use of reported speech because you are repeating the ideas they gave.

You don’t just have to limit this skill to what you hear because you can in fact apply reported speech to the written word. Despite the name, reported speech also refers to text. In this case, you would basically just use the same exact structure, except you might use a different reporting verb. However, in most cases even the reporting verb is the same: “said.” Although a written text is not spoken, we still use “said” in some cases to refer back to it.

Here is an example of something that may be written down in the test:

  • The university will now be offering counseling to all students during the lunch period.

You might respond by saying something like:

  • The university said that it would be offering counseling to all students during the lunch period.

Even though this text was written down as part of an announcement, it is still reasonable to use “said” in reported speech, and in fact this is more common even than saying “wrote.”

As you can see, reported speech is extremely useful for all TOEFL candidates and so it would be wise to brush up on these skills prior to sitting your TOEFL exam. If you are worried about your grammar, you can check out handy TOEFL writing correction service.

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